For the top players, February is one long, slow drift back to the rigors and dangers of competition. The tournaments that begin today continue that drift, as the two biggest names in the game return to ATP and WTA action for the first time since their defeats at the Australian Open. Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams have nursed their wounds from Melbourne and are ready to try their luck again.
Rafa returns at a new event in Rio de Janeiro, while Serena comes back to a familiar one in Dubai. Next week two more stars, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, will also take their places again in the ATP firmament in Dubai. But there’s still one major player who, aside from one weekend of Davis Cup, hasn’t appeared since the Aussie Open: Its men’s champion, Stan Wawrinka. He was scheduled to play in Marseille this week, but pulled out citing an injury. We can let him slide this time. The top players may have suffered from injury and disappointment Down Under, but Stan is still recovering from the shock of his life.
Here’s a look at the draws in Dubai, Rio, Marseille, and the week’s lone American event, in Delray.
Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships (WTA)
$2,000,000; WTA Premier
Draw is here
Two weeks ago, Serena Williams let us know which upcoming tournaments she wouldn’t be playing—namely, Doha and Indian Wells. Many of us thought the announcement was an ominous one, that the back injury she suffered in Melbourne might take a chunk out of her season as well. Then Serena turned around and told us the tournament that she would play—namely, this week’s in Dubai. It would have been a long stretch between Oz and her next event, in Miami. That may have been OK with Serena in the past, but after last year’s 80-match season, she seems to have gotten used to the grind of the road.
Williams will make her return into a semi-loaded but manageable draw. Her prime competitors at the top of the rankings, Victoria Azarenka, Li Na, and Maria Sharapova, are all absent. And the woman who found a way to beat her in Melbourne, Ana Ivanovic, is tucked away safely in the other half. But Serena could face two other women who have beaten her at the same event in the past, Sloane Stephens and Ekaterina Makarova, in her first two matches. A face-off with Stephens seems unlikely, though, as Sloane would have to beat Lucie Safarova and Jelena Jankovic to get there.
—Petra Kvitova, the defending champion.
—Venus Williams, who opens against Elena Vesnina.
—Simona Halep, champion this weekend in Doha. Unfortunately for her, she’s not seeded high enough (yet) to earn a bye in the first round. Halep will start against Alize Cornet, and is near Kvitova in the draw.
—Agnieszka Radwanska. She’s scheduled to face Angelique Kerber in the third round.
First-round matches to watch: Kerber vs. Ana Ivanovic; Caroline Wozniacki vs. Sabine Lisicki
Rio Open (ATP)
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
$1,309,770; 500 ranking points
Draw is here
The biggest debut, tournament-wise, of the ATP season is the IMG-owned, dual-gender, 500-level Rio Open. It’s the anchor of the tour’s new and improved South American swing. Even better for the event, it has Rafael Nadal as its inaugural top seed—and, we assume, its inaugural winner. Red clay is the surface, after all.
Last year Rafa used this February trip to build his game and confidence back up after seven months away. Can he use this tournament in a similar way in 2014, to put a painful loss in a Grand Slam final behind him? There’s not a lot that should stand in his way on the other side of the net, aside from his own countryman. Nadal begins with one fellow Spaniard, Daniel Gimeno-Traver. The other three seeds in his half, Marcel Granollers, Tommy Robredo, and Pablo Andujar, are also Spanish. And so is the man he’s supposed to meet in the final, David Ferrer. For Rafa, this should be as close to home cooking as he can get across the Atlantic.
First-round match to watch: Nicolas Almagro vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov
Non-Spanish seed: Fabio Fognini. The Italian, who has been on a roll—a casual roll, of course—could give Rafa a scare, but he’s in Ferrer’s half.
The women’s draw, which is headed by 34th-ranked Klara Zakopalova, is here.
Open 13 (ATP)
$752,570; 250 ranking points
Draw is here
Rio is where the Spaniards are this week; Marseille is where the French have flown. Eight of its 28 players are natives.
Richard Gasquet is the top seed, but this town belongs to its No. 2, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has won the Open 13 twice. Tsonga also hasn’t won anything since his title here a year ago. Like Tomas Berdych last week, the world No. 10, who lost early in Rotterdam, could use a win.
—Ernests Gulbis, who looked good in reaching the Rotterdam semis last week; he’s up to No. 23 in the world. In the past he’s gone to Delray and been successful; this time he’s staying closer to home.
—Two promising youngsters, one from Australia, Thanasi Kokkinakis, and one from England, Kyle Edmund.
—Nikolay Davydenko. I’m not sure what to say about him, but his presence seems worth noting. Kolya the (Still) Obscure plays Igor Sijsling to start; the winner gets Tsonga.
Delray Beach Open (ATP)
Delray Beach, Fla.
$539,730; 250 ranking points
Draw is here
Last year, Tommy Haas, then 34, said that he had “only” been able to play in Delray seven times—that’s a veteran comment if there ever was one. Haas, now 35, is back again as the top seed. Second is John Isner, who returns for the first time since Melbourne; an ankle injury kept him out of Davis Cup two weeks ago. We’ll see if Isner can build any momentum heading into the big U.S. events in Indian Wells and Miami.
—Marin Cilic, champion in Zagreb and runner-up in Rotterdam.
—Sam Querrey, who has been sliding since Australia. He’ll try to stop that slide against Feliciano Lopez.
"Haven’t I seen you someplace before?" Jack Sock and Adrian Mannarino will face each other for the third time in 2014. Sock won both of the previous meetings.